The Fraud Caucus

On the evening of May 23, a bipartisan group of 14 senators emerged from a series of semi-secret meetings to announce that they'd brokered a deal ending the standoff over Democratic filibusters of several of President Bush's judicial nominees. The group's seven Republicans agreed to vote against the “nuclear option” and to kill the nominations of two of the filibustered judges, while Democrats promised to confirm the most controversial nominees and to deploy the filibuster in the future only under “extraordinary circumstances.”

The deal was a bitter pill for many liberals to swallow. But worse was the glowing media attention paid to the deal-makers that immediately followed. A Washington Post news analysis termed the pact “a dramatic break with the ideological warfare that has defined the politics of Washington for much of the past decade,” and praised the “courage” of the compromisers, who “demonstrated that there is an alternative to the partisan polarization that has been so much in favor in both parties.” Shortly thereafter, National Public Radio aired a sympathetic interview with moderate former Republican Senator Alan Simpson in which he bemoaned the harsh treatment faced by moderates at the hands of the GOP leadership and praised Ohio Senator Mike DeWine for standing up to such pressure.

The moment perfectly captured the media's typical coverage of the Republican moderates, which alternates between laudatory praises of their courage and principle and lamentations of their decline and relative lack of power.

But the deal they struck reflected little in the way of independence, and nothing in the way of principle. The standoff over judges posed two questions -- one about the suitability of Bush's appointments to the federal bench, the other about the rules of the Senate. On both points, the Republican moderates' position was wildly incoherent. If the nuclear option was wrong, they should have voted against it without extra inducement: Demanding a bribe in exchange for not breaking the rules is behavior befitting a gangster, not a principled, independent-minded maverick. Conversely, if judicial filibusters are wrong, the thing to do was to vote for the nuclear option. And with regard to the substance of the judges' qualifications, the GOP moderates managed to dodge that debate entirely. Does moderate Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island really think that paleoconservative nutcase Janice Rogers Brown should be on the bench? Well, he -- and every other “moderate” -- voted for her. And somehow, the media forgot to criticize him.

* * *

The episode was far from the dramatic, paradigm-shattering move portrayed by the media. Instead, it was entirely typical of the Republican moderates' behavior in federal office. Far from applying a brake on the conservative agenda, GOP moderates just dole out the salami of hardcore right-wingery in small slices rather than in a large chunk. Lacking real backbone -- and, more importantly, any coherent ideology that represents and tries to advance moderate Republicanism -- these folks have done far less good on Capitol Hill than is usually presumed.

Examples are rife. On May 12, DeWine's Ohio Republican colleague, George Voinovich, tearfully urged the Republican caucus not to confirm John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “The confirmation of John Bolton would send a contradictory and negative message to the world community about U.S. intentions,” Voinovich said.

The remarks earned him the praise of liberals, while conservative radio host Bill Cunningham took the opportunity to label Voinovich “a clown, a crying clown.” His conclusion isn't far off the mark. Bolton's confirmation could have been killed on May 12 had Voinovich simply chosen to vote against him in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But Voinovich declined to do so, saying, “We owe it to the president to give Mr. Bolton an up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

Here, Voinovich chose to stand on a nonexistent principle. Legislation and nominations alike have regularly been killed in committee. During the Clinton administration, for example, 66 judicial nominees never made it to the floor for a full vote, 42 of them during Voinovich's first term in the Senate without him raising a single objection.

A veritable parade of Republican senators has, at one time or another, offered dissenting opinions to the White House's Tinkerbell line on Iraq. Responding to Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that the insurgency was in its “last throes,” Senator Chuck Hagel told U.S. News & World Report in June, “The White House is completely disconnected from reality. It's like they're just making it up as they go along.” Strong words. But neither Hagel nor other frequently off-message GOP senators, like Indiana's Richard Lugar, have yet mustered the wherewithal to, say, hold hearings to examine the politicization of prewar intelligence, the Coalition Provisional Authority's apparent loss of nearly $9 billion, the no-bid contracts, the shoddy prewar planning, or any other aspect of the strategy.

Abu Ghraib is another case in point. Outrage over the notorious detention center was visible on the faces of Republicans Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, John Warner, during the Senate hearings on May 11, 2004. That month, Warner pledged “to investigate up and down and sideways in the chain of command.” In response, Salon ran a gushing profile that proclaimed Warner “determined to get to the bottom of the Abu Ghraib scandal even if it costs George W. Bush the election.”

It never happened. Instead, while reports of more widespread abuse of detainees in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere trickled in, Warner lost his zeal. “I've got some other issues I need to solve,” Warner told Knight-Ridder on April 30 of this year. Frustrated by the gaps resulting from 12 separate and narrowly circumscribed Defense Department inquiries, Carl Levin and Jack Reed, two Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to Warner on May 26 to urge him to join their call for an independent inquiry or bipartisan staff investigation. “The most serious scandal in recent military history needs an objective investigation,” they wrote. Two weeks later, they got a written response in which Warner proclaimed himself “not prepared to support the concept of an independent inquiry, or a joint investigation by Committee staff.” Minority staff declined to characterize their reaction to Warner's change of heart, hoping to preserve a good working relationship with the chairman in the future. But it's clear where Warner stands: with the White House. And anyone who thinks he can be coaxed, rather than shamed, into changing it is suffering from the legislative equivalent of Stockholm syndrome.

Even apparent action doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Back in 2001, the White House asked for $1.6 trillion in tax cuts. Moderates demurred, scaling it back to “only” $1.35 trillion. Fair enough. But then in 2003, the administration came again, demanding an additional $800 billion in tax cuts. Instead of saying “no,” moderates once again scaled it back, this time to $350 billion. In 2004, the Republicans, once again with moderate support, passed a $143 billion corporate tax-cut bill. The earlier rollbacks were largely illusory, accomplished through budgetary gimmicks and phaseouts designed to disguise, rather than reduce, the cuts' actual cost. Saying that taxes should be continually reduced in the face of ever-higher deficits through a series of small steps rather than a few giant leaps isn't an especially “moderate” position. During the budget fight earlier this year, Democratic efforts to restore pay-as-you-go rules that would have forced the Congress to stick with the scheduled phaseouts were defeated. Moderate senators did provide enough votes to block Republican attempts to cut Medicaid spending, but those cuts were restored in a House-Senate conference committee -- and the objecting senators didn't vote “no” on the final budget. Worse, most of them signaled that they were committed to voting for the budget before the conference committee started its work, thus ensuring that the House version would win out.

* * *

There is much less conflict between moderates and the Republican leadership than is often assumed. Representative Chris Shays of Connecticut is the one GOP moderate who is most likely to stray from the reservation. In April, Shays earned praise from liberal pundits for being the first congressional Republican to call for Tom DeLay's resignation as House majority leader. Less widely known is that on June 1, the Connecticut Republican netted $70,000 at a fund-raiser with House Speaker Dennis Hastert at the posh Belle Haven Country Club in Greenwich.

Hastert and DeLay are different people, to be sure, and Hastert has not been directly implicated in the sort of ethical improprieties that DeLay has. Nevertheless, posing as a prominent enemy of the power behind the House throne while collecting largesse with the help of the man who sits in the throne is self-evidently absurd. In exchange, the leadership knows how to take care of its own. When the hard-right Club for Growth and various cultural conservative outlets backed Representative Pat Toomey's challenge to moderate Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter last year, Republican leaders didn't see it as an opportunity to off a traitor. Instead, they threw their weight behind Specter, campaigning with him in person, helping with fund raising, and making it known that the party liked Specter just fine.

This probably made the difference in Specter's primary, after which he proceeded to defeat his Democratic opponent handily and assume in January the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. This last turn of events provoked some controversy, as conservatives wondered whether a pro-choicer could really be trusted to shepherd Bush's judicial nominees through a contentious confirmation process. Specter promised loyalty, and he delivered -- backing Bush's judges to the hilt and raising no objections to the nuclear option, all the while maintaining a pro-choice stance that has electoral appeal in the Philadelphia suburbs but little impact on the direction of policy.

The cozy relationship is exemplified in the House process known as “catch and release.” Republican leaders allow members who need a moderate reputation in their home states and districts to go unpunished for breaking with the party on controversial votes -- allow them, that is, as long as their votes aren't needed to pass the bill. In exchange, members are expected to vote as they're told when their votes are actually needed to pass something.

Shays is an eager beneficiary of this practice. DeLay was eager to add an amendment to the energy bill that would shield manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE for liability from environmental damage caused by their product. Democrats opposed the idea, as did virtually all legislators from the Northeast, a region where MTBE use is high.

As a result of regional defections, the vote was extremely close, but Shays backed the leadership, helping to put the measure over the top. The overall bill had more support and was destined for easy passage in the House. At that point, Shays, who likes to style himself an environmentalist, cast an ineffectual and meaningless “no.” His vote wasn't needed on the budget provision to permit drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, so he voted “no” on that, too, and for his trouble the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) sent a glowing letter around his district applauding Shays for “rejecting this back-door attack on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and voting to protect this incomparable wilderness.” This, however, is political posturing, not genuine environmental advocacy.

* * *

Of course, Democrats, too, have been known to portray themselves as more moderate than they really are for electoral purposes. But there is a difference. Centrist institutions on the left side of the spectrum, like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), are not merely pushing political tactics; they're pushing ideas. Moderates and liberals within the broad Democratic tent have substantive disagreements about policy issues that are, to some extent, reflected in the behavior of electoral officials. Moderate Republicanism, by contrast, completely lacks real institutions or core beliefs.

The Republican Leadership Council, once intended more or less explicitly as a center-right version of the center-left DLC, has become nothing but a front for typical hatchet politics. Its former executive director, Allen Raymond, is now serving out a five-month prison sentence for his role in a dirty-tricks campaign against New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen's 2002 Senate bid.

The Ripon Institute, a 1960s-vintage Rockefeller Republican operation that used to do real public-policy work, is now, as reported by Elizabeth Drew in the July 23 issue of The New York Review of Books, little more than a money-laundering operation for business lobbyists -- offering trips, as Drew put it, that are “famous among lobbyists for the opportunities they present for pressing their cases with members of Congress.” Roughly speaking, it would be illegal for, say, General Motors to give a representative a bunch of money or an expensive trip. Corporations can, however, give money to the Ripon Educational Fund to help underwrite its annual “Transatlantic Conference” (i.e., European vacation), to which friendly members of Congress get all-expenses-paid invitations.

The Republican Main Street Partnership is more of a going concern, but, as such, it exemplifies the hollowness of today's moderate Republicanism. The group's dissent from the GOP leadership is essentially limited to the question of stem-cell research, where House moderates did join with Democrats to pass a measure that, if seconded by the Senate, would roll back some of the restrictions Bush has placed on the use of federal money. More to the point, Main Street Republicanism is defined by its adherents almost exclusively in tactical terms. It has no real policy arm, and describes its mission as “working to Grow Our Party through a pragmatic approach to governing that reaches out to a broad base of Americans who share the Republican ideals of fiscal responsibility and limited government.”

It is only a small exaggeration to say that there are no moderate Republicans at all. There are grandstanders who enjoy the notoriety and media access that can be gained from the occasional off-message statement to the press. There are vulnerable Republicans who need to move to the left every so often in order to win elections. But there is no group of Republicans that, through real actions with consequences and meaningful policy engagement, makes any significant effort to block the conservative agenda or implement a centrist one. That people who say different things from their co-partisans but act the same when the votes are counted can acquire reputations as independent-minded mavericks says a great deal about the culture of our political media -- and very little about where the legislative balance of power lies.

The disconnect between the ostensible aims of moderate Republicanism and its actions in practice is often accounted for by invoking the awesome disciplinary apparatus of the White House and the congressional leadership. Obviously, it's difficult to ascertain the extent to which DeLay, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and the White House lean on GOP moderates. The pressure is probably considerable. Even so, pundits never give any thought to the opposite, also plausible, explanation: that the moderates are happy to be whipped. Remarkable as the lack of dissent on policy votes is, the lack of dissent from moderates about the Bush administration's unprecedented centralization of power is even more so. The lack of pushback suggests a group of people content to have a ready excuse to offer their constituents if they wind up voting with the right when the roll is called.

* * *

The real reason all this matters so much is this: The myth of the GOP moderates has led the Democratic Party and liberal advocacy groups to accept an idea about them that is completely backward. Democrats and liberal groups tend to see moderate Republicans as precious models of sanity with whom they can work. Instead, given the districts and states the moderates tend to represent, Democrats and liberals should view the moderates as people who can be beaten, thereby building a Democratic majority.

Chafee, for example, is potentially ripe for defeat in navy-blue Rhode Island. But NARAL Pro-Choice America kicked off the 2006 campaign season with a very early, preemptive endorsement of him in what many are reading as a warning shot to a Democratic Party that contemplated nominating an anti-abortion Democrat to run against the pro-choice Chafee.

Diane Farrell, the Democratic first selectman of the wealthy coastal town of Westport, Connecticut, ran a tight race against Shays in 2004, giving him one of the slimmest margins of victory of all Republican incumbents. Farrell was likely done in by such “crossover” endorsements. Shays, as reward for breaking with his party's leaders when they had a majority anyway, got endorsements from the LCV and the Sierra Club. “Admittedly, [Shays] is better than most,” says Farrell. “But as I said to the environmental groups, ‘No pun intended, but you are missing the forest for the trees.'”

Ironically, endorsements of Shays from The New York Times and groups like WILD PAC and the Human Rights Campaign had a tendency to give him extra credit for taking stances as a Republican that would be unexceptional for a Democrat. Why one should get special praise from a group for being a member of a political party that's unremittingly hostile to the group's agenda is unclear. A Democratic member of Congress from suburban Connecticut no doubt would have less opportunity to demonstrate what the Times called Shays' “rare thoughtfulness and considerable independence” because there would be fewer times when doing the obviously right thing required “fearlessness.”

Republican-endorsing liberal groups, of course, have their reasons for doing what they do. An occasional cross-party endorsement maintains a veneer of nonpartisanship that's useful for fund-raising and tax purposes. Groups often have moderate Republicans on their boards or among their donors. What's more, no lobby wants to back itself into a corner where it can safely be taken for granted. Tossing endorsements to a few Republicans helps encourage Democrats to stay on the straight and narrow and gives Republicans at least some incentive to break with their party. What's more, political power, especially in the House, is largely zero-sum. While a Democratic majority could do a great deal for the environment, one additional backbench freshman member of a Democratic minority would be unlikely to accomplish anything.

At the end of the day, however, as Farrell says she told LCV President Deb Callahan, progressives need to ask themselves: “Do you want to win the battle and lose the war, or do you want to win the war?” Democrats have lost Senate and congressional races in the South over the past several years precisely because conservative groups don't play nice with moderate Democrats. Oklahoma's Brad Carson and South Carolina's Inez Tenenbaum, both Senate candidates in 2004, were -- quite correctly -- seen by conservatives as stalking-horses for a Democratic Senate majority, not for a social-conservative takeover of the Democratic Party. As a result, these were the states where the right pushed hardest. Republicans and conservative groups stay focused on winning the war.

* * *

The press likes moderate republicans, first and foremost because tales of their supposedly embattled existence and pseudo-compromises make for good copy. In addition, their ideological viewpoint -- in essence, sensible conservatism without the religious fundamentalism and ersatz populism -- is broadly in line with the media's as a whole. Embattled liberals can ill afford delusions. This is not, as the cliché has it, an “endangered species” of cuddly would-be progressives at risk of being devoured by Tom DeLay. It's right-wingery with a hypocritical face, designed to allow the GOP to reap the benefits of political polarization without paying the price. Too often, however, liberals seem eager to throw vulnerable Republicans a lifeline rather than drive a stake through the heart of the beast.

Maine's Chellie Pingree, for example, seemed to have a good shot at unseating Senator Susan Collins in the summer of 2002 with a campaign centered on health care when, back in Washington, Collins suddenly found herself the co-sponsor of a modest prescription-drug reform bill along with John Edwards. Deprived of its best issue, and with Democratic leaders apparently contradicting the line that a vote for Collins was a vote for Trent Lott (then the Senate majority leader), the Pingree campaign deflated.

“It is a real dilemma,” says an understanding Pingree, “and there are a lot of people in this climate who would say you've got to make alliances when you can to get what you want -- and, honestly, that's what good legislation should be.” But modest tinkering with the health-care status quo isn't what liberals want. Structural reform will never be undertaken without a Democratic majority, a majority that will have to be built largely on the backs of the very Republicans most inclined to talk a good game when it doesn't really count.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer. Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.

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